The Civil War and West Virginia

Blogger Brett Schulte aks why I think the Charleston Gazette's list of "Top 10 West Virginia Civil War sites" is extravagantly incompetent. I suppose others are also wondering, too.

The paper headlined their list this way - "Top 10 West Virginia Civil War sites" - and I referred to it as such, but in fact it describes the setup thus: "Five Civil War historians from all over the state were asked what sites they thought were the most important to the state’s history."

That assignment could refer to the state's Civil War history or the history of its founding in the Civil War.

Either way, the list is ridiculous.

Let's allow for the possibility that five historians provided lists, each with its own internal logic, and that these were then cherry-picked by a journalist with no historical sense whatsoever - that a complete hash was made. No matter. There are many items that have no place here.

My favorites are those with tourism value but little historical significance. Hello Lewisburg" (no. 8) where "On May 23, 1862, a brief but fierce battle erupted that would eventually end up in the heart of downtown Lewisburg." Yes? And?

Here's a good one: Grafton National Cemetery (no. 7), with convenient access to Grafton shopping, of course. Very important to the state's history.

I like number 5, "Historic Shepherdstown," since it tactfully avoids mentioning a similarly named battlefield nearby that may get developed by the time you read this.

Harper's Ferry (no. 1) is/was not key to the formation of the state of West Virginia, the secession from Virginia, Virginia unionism, or anything else - it's a site of national significance in the war.

No. 2, the state's Independence Hall museum - okay. Now we are onto something.

That leaves us with this collection of battles leading to the independence of the state: Droop Mountain (1863), which just happens to have a battlefield park to elevate its significance; Carnifex Ferry (1861); and Rich Mountain (the Rich Mountain of 1863, not of 1861!)

Two listings are ambiguous: Camp Allegheny (no. 10), Cheat Summit Fort (no. 9) are described as encampment sites, not battlefields.

If George McClellan succeeded in rescuing the Unionists of Virginia in 1861, there's not much sign of it in this list.

Let's take a quick view of the origins of the state. There are the military events leading to the conquest of the western part of Virginia. These open the way for political organizing. There is a consolidation of the Union military victory as Virginia attempts to undo the earlier results. There is a political consolidation Finally, there are raid-like episodes later in the war that cannot undo what has been achieved earlier. Statehood is achieved.

Do you see the pattern? The framework for the political developments are the military campaigns.

Here's a little list of just seven battles from 1861. Add three political sites and you are done.

Here's a list of 15 battles. You'll have to trim five for your list, then you're done.

Here's a map with another 15 and links.

What do you know, a tourist map with 23 Civil War sites on it?

And what's this? A map of Civil War sites in just one county of the Great Valley?

The editorial challenge is to reduce the number of battles and political sites to a comprehensive, logical brief - to reach the journalist's arbitrary number of 10. The historians first enter into this fool's game, then supply the hack with mixed nuts and candy instead of historically defensible selections.

Or maybe I need to lighten up.

p.s 12:43 pm.

A further friendly exchange with Brett suggests to me I should clearly say how I would have built such a list myself.

My bottom line is that any list makers here needed to (1) Choose the decisive campaign that allowed WV to be organized politically. That would be McClellan's campaign. Reduce it to its essential victories. (2) Possibly choose one or more decisive points in the later Rosecrans vs Lee episodes during the Union consolidation - select that point one thinks Lee can no longer retrieve the West for Virginia. (3) Optionally, highlight the most dramtic reconquest incident(s) after Lee and Rosecrans depart the scene. (4) Mix in political sites as judgement dictates.

However colorful, you don't need Averell's raid or Lander's defeat of and pursuit of Stonewall Jackson in the mix - they don't connect to West Virginia's creation and maintenance. You don't need colorful towns and villages or gravesites either.

What this list did was mix national and local significance, this and that battle from this or that campaign spanning whatever years; it also sported a irrelevant sites (graveyards, towns) and then presented a handful of potsherds as a list of historic significance.

IMHO, as they say here on the Internet. And thanks to Brett for asking.

p.p.s. (5:00 pm) I got an angry email from a reader who thinks this was supposed to be a mere newspaper list of important historic sites in WV and therefore there is nothing amiss in having Harper's Ferry or Averell's raid commended. To repeat the key part of this post, "Five Civil War historians from all over the state were asked what sites they thought were the most important to the state’s history."